2020 Iranian attack on U.S. forces in Iraq

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2020 Iranian attack on U.S. forces in Iraq
Part of the American-led intervention in Iraq and Persian Gulf crisis
Ain al-Assad air base, 8 jan 2020.png
Damage (encircled) to at least five structures at Ayn al-Asad airbase in a series of missile attacks by Iran
Operational scopeMilitary strike targeting multiple sites
Locations
33°48′N 42°26′E / 33.800°N 42.433°E / 33.800; 42.433

36°11′28″N 44°00′33″E / 36.191188°N 44.009189°E / 36.191188; 44.009189
Planned byIran Iran
Commanded byMajor General Hossein Salami
TargetAyn al-Asad Airbase
Erbil Airbase
Date8 January 2020 (UTC+03:00)
Executed byAerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps[1]
Outcome11 Fateh-313 missiles[2][3] hit Ayn al-Asad Airbase
1 Qiam 1 missile hits 20 miles from Erbil International Airport
1 Qiam 1 missile reaches Erbil International Airport and does not explode
3 Qiam 1 missiles fail in the air
Casualties34 U.S. military personnel concussed[4]
2020 Iranian attack on U.S. forces in Iraq is located in Iraq
Ayn al-Asad Airbase
Ayn al-Asad Airbase
Erbil
Erbil
Location within Iraq

On 8 January 2020, in a military operation code named Operation Martyr Soleimani (Persian: عملیات شهید سلیمانی‎),[5] Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched numerous ballistic missiles at the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Al Anbar Governorate, Western Iraq, as well as another airbase in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, in response to the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani by a United States drone strike.[6][7][8] It was initially reported that the attack resulted in no casualties; however, eleven U.S. service members were evaluated for concussion-like symptoms a week after the attack.[9][10][11][12] Altogether 34 service members were treated for traumatic brain injuries; 17 of them were evacuated to Germany or Kuwait for further treatment, including eight who were subsequently sent to the United States.[13]

Iran informed the Iraqi government before the attack[14] and the information was reportedly passed to the U.S. military. Some analysts suggested the strike was deliberately designed to avoid causing any casualties to avoid an American response.[15][16] However, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the attack was intended to kill.[17]

Background[edit]

In the lead up to the attacks, Iranian officials had said Iran would retaliate against U.S. forces for the killing of general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on 3 January 2020.[18] U.S. president Donald Trump warned Tehran that any retaliation would result in the U.S. targeting 52 significant Iranian sites, including cultural sites.[19] Reportedly, following the Baghdad strike, U.S. intelligence agencies detected Iran's heightened readiness but it was unclear at the time if they were defensive measures or an indication of a future attack on U.S. forces.[20]

On 3 December 2019, an Iraqi military statement said five rockets had landed on the Ayn al-Asad airbase, with no injuries.[21] Later, a "security source" inside Ayn al-Asad airbase and a "local official at a nearby town" told Reuters that reports the airbase was under attack at that time were false.[22] These reports on Twitter temporarily caused a rally of U.S. and Brent crude oil futures.[22]

On 4 January 2020, two rockets hit the Balad Air Base located near Baghdad.[23][24] Two mortars also hit Baghdad's Green Zone.[24] These attacks resulted in no casualties or damage.[23]

According to Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) Adel Abdul Mahdi's spokesperson, on 8 January, shortly after midnight, the PM had received a message from Iran, indicating that the response to the killing of General Soleimani had "started or was about to start". Iran also informed the PM that only those locations where the U.S. troops are stationed would be targeted. Although the exact locations of the bases were not disclosed, U.S. officials confirm their troops had an adequate warning to shelter from the attack.[14][25]

Attacks[edit]

U.S. president Donald Trump and senior advisors meet in the White House Situation Room to assess the missile attacks, 7 January 2020 (EST)

According to the state-run Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Iran launched "tens of ground-to-ground missiles" at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops.[5] ISNA added that the code used to launch the missiles was "Oh Zahra".[26][5] The attacks unfolded in two waves, each about an hour apart;[27] Fars News Agency subsequently released video of the missile launches.[28][29] The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for the attack and announced that it was carried out in response to the killing of Soleimani. The IRGC said the strikes came at roughly the same time Soleimani died[30] and added that if the U.S. retaliated, they would respond in kind. It also declared that the attack was intended as a warning that applied to any regional actor that provides basing for U.S. military personnel.[8] Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran symbolically targeted the bases, alleging they were the bases used to launch the aircraft that assisted in the killing of Soleimani.[31]

Although the Pentagon disputed the amount launched, it confirmed that both the Ayn Al Asad airbase and an airbase in Erbil were hit by Iranian missiles.[32][33] A spokesman for United States Central Command said a total of 15 missiles were fired, with ten hitting the Ayn Al Asad airbase, one hitting the Erbil base, and four missiles failing to reach their target.[27] U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper later gave a similar estimate, saying 16 short-range missiles had been launched from three locations within Iran, with 11 striking Ayn al-Asad (instead of the prior estimate of 10).[34] Other sources confirmed that two targeted Erbil: one hit Erbil International Airport and did not explode, the other landed about 20 miles west of Erbil.[35]

According to the Iraqi military, 22 missiles were fired between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m. local, 17 toward Ayn Al Asad base and five at Erbil.[36][37] According to U.S. troops at Al Asad, the first missiles landed at 1:34 a.m. and were followed by three more volleys, spaced out by more than 15 minutes each. The attack was over by 4:00 a.m.[38]

Iran's Tasnim News Agency reported that the IRGC used Fateh-313 and Qiam ballistic missiles in the attack and claimed that U.S. forces failed to intercept them because they were equipped with cluster warheads.[39]

Damage[edit]

The U.S. military initially assessed that there were no U.S. casualties,[27] which was later echoed by the president.[40][41] Senior Iraqi officials said there were no Iraqi casualties.[12] Among the coalition forces present on the two bases, Australia,[42] Canada,[43] Denmark,[44] Finland,[45] Lithuania,[45] Norway,[26] and Poland[46] confirmed that their personnel were unharmed. Iranian television said there were 80 U.S. deaths as well as damage to U.S. helicopters and "military equipment".[47] OPEC's secretary-general Mohammed Barkindo on conference in Abu Dhabi announced that Iraqi oil facilities were secure.[37]

Aftermath of the missile attacks on Al Asad Airbase, 13 January 2020

President Trump announced that the damage was minimal.[40][41] According to The Military Times, a U.S. commando said Al Asad Airbase suffered the brunt of the missile barrage.[48] Satellite photos provided by Planet Labs showed extensive damage to the Al Asad base, with at least five structures damaged in the attack, showing that the missiles were precise enough to hit individual buildings. David Schmerler, an analyst with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, which evaluated the photos, said the attacks seem to have hit buildings that store aircraft, while buildings used for housing staff were not hit.[49] The U.S. defense secretary said the damage was limited to "tentage, taxiways, the parking lot, damaged helicopter, things like that, nothing I would describe as major".[34] Two defense officials told Newsweek that 18 missiles, which used on-board guidance systems, landed in Al Asad airbase, three of them on the runway, while another hit and damaged an air control tower. One Black Hawk helicopter was destroyed, an MQ-1 Predator drone was damaged and ten tents were "destroyed".[50] Damaged structures also included a special forces compound, and two hangars, in addition to the U.S. drone operators' housing unit.[38] Some soldiers lamented losing all their personal belongings—clothes, books, pictures of their families and mementos they had carried through more than a decade in the military.[51]

U.S. soldiers stationed at Ayn Al Asad later confirmed that they had received advanced warning of the missile attack via secret intelligence signals—before the Iraqis notified them—and that by 11:00 p.m. (local), several hours before the first missiles landed, most of the American section of the base was in lockdown while other troops had been flown out. Only essential personnel such as tower guards and drone pilots remained unsheltered as they were protecting against a ground assault which base commanders expected would follow the missile attack. The base did not have structures in place to defend against a missile attack of the kind launched by the IRGC, with many taking cover in concrete indirect fire bunkers and pyramid-like shelters that were built during the Iran–Iraq War. Troops re-emerged from their shelters at the break of dawn.[38]

Several European and U.S. government officials believed that Iran deliberately avoided casualties in their operation in order to send a message of resolve to avenge Soleimani without provoking a substantial military response.[52][53][54] However, Pentagon officials said they believed the missiles were intended to kill Americans.[34] Top U.S. general Mark Milley believed the missiles were intended to cause structural damage, to destroy vehicles, equipment, and aircraft, and to kill personnel, adding that defensive measures by U.S. troops and early warning systems were what prevented personnel from being killed.[34] Lieutenant Colonel Tim Garland, a U.S. commander at Ayn Al Asad base, said the missile volleys were timed in such a way as to trick soldiers into thinking the bombing was over. Iranian aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh said the intention was not to kill any American troops but that they could have planned the operation to do so. He also claimed, without evidence, that Iran launched cyber attacks that disabled U.S. missile tracking systems during the strikes. He added that driving out U.S. forces from the region was the only fitting revenge for killing General Soleimani.[55]

Injuries[edit]

Colonel Garland said two soldiers who had been in guard towers at Ayn Al Asad airbase were blown from their posts during the missile attacks, suffering concussions.[51] On 16 January, over a week after the attack, several U.S. defense officials confirmed that "out of an abundance of caution", 11 U.S. troops were medically evacuated to military hospitals—three to Camp Arifjan in Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait and eight to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany—to be treated for traumatic brain injury and to undergo further evaluations. The first service member was flown out of Iraq on 10 January, while others were evacuated on 15 January.[56] According to a senior defense official, "About a week after the attack some service members were still experiencing some symptoms of concussion", adding that "We only got wind of this in the last 24 hours." Another official said that it was standard procedure for all personnel in the vicinity of a blast to be screened for TBI.[57]

The injury reports raised questions about initial U.S. assessments that there were no casualties and ignited debate over the Pentagon's longstanding treatment of brain injuries as a different class of wounds that, it says, do not require them to be regarded as "casualties". The Pentagon sharply denied that it attempted to underplay injuries from the attack, with a spokesman saying that the secretary of defense himself only learned of the MEDEVACs a few hours before the general public did, and that brain injuries often take time to manifest and diagnose.[11][56]

In contrast to the U.S. reports, Al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, claimed on 18 January that 16, not 11, U.S. service members were transferred to Camp Arifjan to be treated for not only TBI, but severe burns and shrapnel wounds as well.[58][59]

On 24 January a Pentagon spokesman said that 34 service members had traumatic brain injuries from the attack. Seventeen of them were evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and eight of those were subsequently sent to the United States for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.[60] Another was evacuated to Kuwait. Sixteen service members were treated in Iraq and have returned to duty.[13]

Aftermath[edit]

While damage assessments where still underway, Iranian state media claimed the attacks caused more than eighty deaths.[61] Later, a hoax Pentagon memo claiming one hundred thirty-nine American troops were killed was spread on social media.[62] Washington Examiner attributed the forged memo to an IRGC disinformation attempt.[62]

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) prohibiting U.S. civil aviation operators from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.[63][64] Singapore Airlines and Qantas Airlines diverted their flights from Iran airspace following the attacks.[65]

On the evening of 8 January 2020, Reuters reported that three Katyusha rockets were launched, in Baghdad by unidentified militants, hitting the Green Zone.[66][67]

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin announces sanctions on Iran's metal industries, 10 January 2020

On 10 January, the Trump administration imposed new economic sanctions on Iran that targeted the country's metals industry, including the construction, manufacturing, textiles and mining economic sectors. U.S. treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin noted that the sanctions on metals and other industries would be both primary and secondary sanctions that allows the U.S. to designate other sectors in the future. Additionally, the U.S. announced 17 specific sanctions against Iran's largest copper, steel, aluminum, and iron manufacturers, a network of Chinese and Seychelles-based entities, and a vessel involved in the transfer of metal products. The administration also sanctioned eight senior Iranian officials who were involved in the missile attacks, including the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani Araghi, and IRGC senior officer Gholamreza Soleimani.[68][69]

On January 12, at least four Iraqi soldiers were injured after seven mortars attacked an airbase in Baghdad that housed U.S. trainers.[70]

On January 15, the U.S. resumed its joint military operations with Iraq against the Islamic State, which were halted after Iran's missile attack.[71] On 16 January, spokesman of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf confirmed that the Iraqi authorities did not grant approval for the US military to continue their operations in Iraq.[72]

Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash[edit]

Hours following the initial missile attacks on Iraq, and after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced the NOTAM for the region, a Boeing 737-800 crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, killing all 176 passengers on board, including at least 130 Iranians. Iranian officials initially said the plane crashed due to technical failures unrelated to the missile attacks. However, they drew skepticism when they refused to allow Boeing or U.S. aviation officials access to the black boxes.[73]

On 11 January, after The New York Times obtained and published video showing the moment the aircraft was hit by an Iranian missile,[74] Iran admitted to having shot down the plane due to human error, claiming their military mistook the plane for a "hostile target".[75] A wave of anti-government protests emerged across Iran in response to the perceived cover-up, with some demanding the ayatollah to resign. U.S. President Trump tweeted support for the protesters in English and in Farsi.[76] British ambassador to Iran Robert Macaire was arrested and held in custody for more than an hour after attending a demonstration at Tehran's Amirkabir University of Technology. According to Tasnim News Agency, he was arrested for "suspicion of organising, provoking and directing radical actions". UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab called the ambassador's arrest "a flagrant violation of international law".[77]

Reactions[edit]

On 8 January 2020, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, said military actions are not enough and that the "corruptive presence" of the United States in the Middle East must be ended.[78] Khameini also described the airstrikes as a "slap in the face" to the U.S.[79] On 17 January 2020,Ali Khamenei described the attack that "Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God", in a Friday sermon.[80]

After the attack, Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted "Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression."[6][81][82]

U.S. response[edit]

President Trump addresses the nation, White House, 8 January 2020

In his first public comments on the attack, at 8:45 pm EST on 7 January, President Trump tweeted "All is well!", said that damage assessments were ongoing, and added that he would make a statement on the attack the following morning.[6][83] In his televised White House statement, while being flanked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump sought to reduce tensions by downplaying the impact of the missile attacks, observing that Iran appeared to be "standing down", and ruling out a direct military response. Furthermore, Trump said he was willing to "embrace peace" and urged greater international cooperation in the region, suggesting it is possible for Iran and the U.S. to fight against a common enemy such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. However, there were no suggestions that his administration's "maximum pressure" campaign would relent, with his announcement of new sanctions on Iran and affirmation that they would never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons while he was in office.[40][41]

Both Democratic and Republican members of the Senate advised the Trump administration to deescalate its stance with Iran. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said, "I believe the President wants to avoid conflict or needless loss of life but he's rightly prepared to protect American lives and interests and I hope Iran's leaders do not miscalculate by questioning our collective will in launching further attacks."[84]

In a letter to the United Nations, the U.S. wrote that it is braced to take further necessary action in the Middle East to ensure safety of U.S. personnel, and it is also ready to "engage in serious negotiations with Iran without preconditions" to avert war.[85]

Global reactions[edit]

European Union leaders urged Trump, both in public and in private, not to give a military response.[86] British Prime Minister Boris Johnson denounced the missile attacks on U.S. forces, urging Iran to avoid further "reckless and dangerous" strikes.[87] Shortly after Trump's announcement regarding the 8 January attack, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged his followers not to conduct any attacks against U.S. elements in Iraq.[88] Sistani also called for ceasefire on both sides, saying the conflict violated Iraqi sovereignty.[89]

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said the kingdom would stand with Iraq and do everything in its power to spare it from the "danger of war and conflict between external parties".[90]

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin, that "no one has the right to throw the whole region, especially Iraq, into a new ring of fire for the sake of their own interests." He added "the tension between our ally U.S.A. and our neighbor Iran has reached a point that we do not desire at all," while promoting Turkey's diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.[91]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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